The Perfect Season tells the story of the 1964-1965 Evansville Purple Aces, who won the NCAA College Division championship with a perfect 29-0 record. Author Russell Grieger was a member of the team, and spoke with IU Press about the season and his memories of it.
IU Press: What was your role on this team?
Russell Grieger: We didn’t have point guards and second guards back then. There was a center, two forwards, and two guards. I was one of the two starting guards on the team, and quite happily so. We had two first team All-Americans on our team. The first was the great Jerry Sloan, who after graduation went on to play professional ball for the Chicago Bulls, and then he matriculated into coaching NBA basketball and ended up coaching the Utah Jazz for twenty-some odd years. He was a first team All-American for three years running, including our senior year which was 1964-65.
And then we had another All-American first teamer Larry Humes from Madison, Indiana, who now lives in Indianapolis. Larry was a junior while Jerry and I were seniors. So we had two just extraordinarily outstanding players on our team. There’s not many teams anywhere in the world that has one, much less two All-Americans.
I was one of the players that just kind of supported those guys. I just tried to do my job and play quality defense and score points when I had the opportunity and make sure we ran our offense efficiently. I’m very proud of my part in the whole thing, but I certainly wasn’t the superstar or anything like that.
IUP: Going into that season, did you suspect that this could be a championship caliber team?
RG: I did. We actually won the NCAA championship the prior year in 1963-1964. We had a nine person rotation that year, with Jerry Sloan our All-American kind of at the hub. We had two groups of four players that kind of rotated in and out. Five guys would start, then four guys would replace the five guys that started the game. We’d do the same thing in the second half, and then whoever was really clicking in that game would finish the game with Jerry. But we won the NCAA championship that year, and then we had back a healthy nucleus of four or five of us, plus a newcomer sophomore Herbie Williams who broke into the starting lineup. So we had high expectations from the beginning. We set the NCAA championship as our goal from the first day of practice, even before the first day of practice, but nobody envisioned going undefeated. That’s rarely, rarely ever done.
The perfect season was not only the championship, but doing it undefeated.
IUP: The cliche for every sports team is taking it one game at a time,and that had to be on your mind as well. But at what point do you start thinking “Hey, maybe we can do this? Maybe undefeated can happen?”
RG: We really did try to take things one game at a time, but I think the wrinkle of it was that we had a bunch of players who just really loved to play the game of basketball. So every time we dressed for a game, and even to a lesser degree for practice, every day was special. Every game was special. We almost played one game at a time not as a motivational tactic, but more as an opportunity or expression of the love of the game. We might be playing Notre Dame or we might be playing a lesser team like Valparaiso, but it didn’t make any difference because that was the game where we had the opportunity to express ourselves and what creativity we had individually and as a unit for pleasure and joy.